Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Album Review: Exit Eden - Rhapsodies In Black

Let's forget the last two years ever existed. If we do that, I can readily claim that pop music is often overlooked for the quality of songwriting that goes into making those earworms. We often think of them as fluffy and disposable, largely because of the artist's images and the synthetic sound of the 'instruments' used to make it, but underneath the facade is some incredibly strong melodic writing (or there used to be - the last two years have been pure garbage). When a pop song is taken by a rock band and amped up with heavier guitars, it's amazing the transformation, and just how good a lot of them sound. I know there's a terrific example of Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" out there, and last year a metal version of Adele's entire "25" was put out, which certainly made me take notice.

The ladies of Exit Eden are doing the same thing, reinventing some classic pop hits as darker, more symphonic rock and metal tracks. Some people might say this project is lesser because they aren't writing new songs, but the whole point is that they're proving a larger point about music itself. One that we should remember, and hopefully one that will bleed back into the pop music itself (Remember when pop songs had guitars? Oh, those were the days....)

The Depeche Mode song "Question Of Time" opens the album, and is a dramatic, ornate slab of melodic metal that tells you what you're going to get from Exit Eden. The four ladies take turns belting out the song, with Amanda Somerville in particular scaling new heights of melodrama with her voice. The song has never sounded this big, and the arrangement really works as a symphonic metal song.

Other highlights include the first single, a cover of Rihanna's "Unfaithful". The lone scratching violin that is allowed to pop up in the intro and the verse is the kind of creepy bit of darkness that a Gothic or Victorian ethos needs to have, and it shows the attention to detail that was put into making these songs something unique. When the chorus arrives, and the four ladies are teaming up, we get a revelation of pop music. They take the melody to places Rihanna never could, showing just how excellent the writing truly is. It's a song that would fit seamlessly in Nightwish's glory days, which is not at all what most metal fans would consider of a pop song.

The cover of Bryan Adams' "Heaven" falls into this category as well. It was always a song with a bit of drama in it, and this arrangement turns the dial up to eleven. Likewise, Katy Perry's "Firework" scales new mountains in this setting. And you can't talk about drama without mentioning Jim Steinman, who is covered in the massive rendition of "Total Eclipse Of The Heart". All I can say is "Oh....My.... God...." Someone seriously needs to get Amanda or Jorn Lande to do an entire album of metal covers of Jim Steinman songs. It would make my heart melt. (I would volunteer my time to serve as the Steinman "expert" curating the track listing. Seriously.)

The only song that doesn't hit the mark, to me, is the closing "Fade To Grey". It wasn't written with the same melodic sense as the other songs, and wasn't a good fit for the tone of the album. The pick of Madonna's "Frozen" is the other non-standout, but more because of what could have been than actual weakness on its part. I have to imagine "Like A Prayer" would have fit in even better here.

Really, there's no downside to Exit Eden. By starting with the framework of a hit pop song, and building out the symphonic metal from there, the most important part of the song is already taken care of. So much of metal in this mold uses the beauty of the vocal to hide the fact the composers aren't capable of writing a sticky melody that will remain in your head. Exit Eden skips over this problem entirely, and uses the talents of the musicians to enhance songs that were already great. It's using the skills of the musicians to their best effect, while letting the hardest part of songwriting be handled by the pros.

You could criticize "Rhapsodies In Black" for being a cover album. You wouldn't be wrong, but it's more than that. This isn't a band just putting a thin veneer on a bunch of songs so they didn't have to sit down and write some of their own. Exit Eden is a project that is making a point about pop music, metal, and how they can interact. As a songwriter, it's fascinating to hear how a song can be utterly transformed by the musicians whose hands it is in, while still remaining the same song we've already known and loved.

Yes, there isn't anything technically 'new' about Exit Eden, but their existence is a novel experiment, and one that I'm thrilled by. Hearing pop music emerge from its cocoon, metamorphosed into this dramatic metal album, is something amazing. I grew up listening to pop music, and later got into metal. This album fuses those two identities nearly perfectly. It's remarkable. I love so much about this album. Go listen to some of it. Trust me.

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